Doing Good and Being Bad: The Presidents Club, Charity and Moral Licensing.

Last January, an article in the Financial Times broke a story about a men-only charity event run by the Presidents Club, a charitable trust set up to raise money for “worthy children’s causes.” Allegations were made by undercover journalists who attended the black tie event as ‘hostesses,’ 130 of whom were hired to attend the event where they were required to wear a uniform of short tight black dresses, “sexy” black high heels and matching black underwear in order to “keep [the attendees] happy – and fetch drinks when required.” According to the FT, the selection criteria for women to work at the event were that they be “tall, thin and pretty”. Women interviewed by the FT described being repeatedly groped, propositioned for sex, and instructed to “down that glass, rip off your knickers and dance on that table.” The Presidents Club has closed as a result of the negative attention following the article, and many prominent figures in business, entertainment and politics have been publicly named as attending the dinner, and required to defend their involvement.

A tendency of those involved in the event (including the Presidents Club itself and those responsible for recruiting the hostesses) has been to highlight, first, the excellent philanthropic work the Presidents Club does in raising “several million pounds for disadvantaged children”, before condemning the (alleged) behaviour of its members.

I do not intend to discuss in any detail the ethics of sexual misconduct or harassment in the workplace, nor the moral wrongfulness of the particular acts alleged to have occurred during the Presidents Club dinner. These are, undoubtedly, topics that could benefit from careful philosophical consideration. Instead, I will assume that the description of events given in the FT article is basically accurate, and that a number of men attending the charity dinner acted wrongfully in their treatment of the hostesses. I will also assume, as seems most plausible, that those involved in organising the event were broadly aware of how attendees behaved towards the hostesses. Indeed, the dinner has been running for a number of years, with reports consistent with the description of the 2018 event in this brief mention in the Independent from 2010 and in accounts from hostesses from previous years. Here, however, I am interested in how ‘bad behaviour’ and charitable giving may go hand in hand, contrary to what most might expect. This has additional relevance in the light of accusations of inappropriate behaviour directed at individuals working for other charities, including Oxfam, the Red Cross, and Save the Children.

Moral Licensing and Moral Cleansing

Counterintuitively, there is some evidence that, rather than acting consistently, people’s moral behaviour can vary according to previous moral acts. Roughly, people who do something good or virtuous may feel licensed to do something bad or sinful later on. An example that may be familiar – and one that helps explain why taking up exercise typically fails to result in weight loss – is the tendency to ‘treat yourself’ with a slice of cake (/hot chocolate [with cream]/glass of wine) as a reward for completing a workout. Something comparable might be going on in terms of people’s ‘moral self-regulation’: recalling a previous charitable donation, writing about oneself using positive words or even imagining oneself performing altruistic acts can make one less likely to donate to charity in the present, less generous in dictator games, or more likely to behave dishonestly.*

Whilst moral licensing refers to the way in which doing good licenses one to do bad later, a form of ‘prospective’ moral licensing has also been described. This is where the expectation of performing a good behaviour later, results in bad behaviour in the present. For instance, Cascio and Plant (2015) describe an experiment where participants who anticipated giving blood in the future where more likely to display racial bias than those in a control condition. Alternatively, one might identify a form of moral cleansing: after performing a morally bad act (or recalling past morally bad acts one has performed), one may be more inclined to engage in good acts in the present, in order to re-establish one’s moral credentials.

Moral licensing/cleansing has interesting implications for charitable fundraising. It suggests that the goings-on of the Presidents Club might not be so surprising. By accident or design, decadent charitable balls – where attendees indulge in hedonistic pleasures and immoral (perhaps illegal) activities – could be well-suited to maximising donations by tapping into the moral licensing / cleansing effect. By encouraging potential donors to behave badly – tempting them with scantily clad women and loosening their inhibitions with alcohol – the organisers of the dinner effectively create a situation where only large and generous displays of altruism from the attendees will atone for their behaviour.

I don’t wish to claim here that moral licensing is the only, nor the most important, factor in considering why hedonism and charity sometimes come hand-in-hand. I only speculate, here, how the mechanisms of moral licensing might force us to re-think our conceptions of what it is to be a ‘charitable or ‘good’ person, and whether the exploitation of such effects by charitable organisations themselves is defensible.

For the Greater Good?

Moral licensing/cleansing seems to be describing a kind of internal, moral accounting that individuals engage in (perhaps without conscious awareness). They are trading doing good now for doing bad later. Another form of moral accounting is being enacted by those who allow or facilitate events such as the Presidents Club dinner: accepting the moral harms occurring during the event itself in exchange for the moral goods they will create from the money raised for children’s charities. Whilst most have rushed to condemn not only the behaviour of the men involved in the Presidents Club scandal, but also the organisers – with some of the beneficiaries pledging to return any donations they received – others have asserted that such a trade-off is acceptable. In an opinion piece for the Telegraph, Zoe Strimpel asserts:

In my view, the only plausible checks on funds where children’s lives are at stake are murder, torture, human trafficking or any other systematic brutality. The Presidents Club money hadn’t been made through any of these… To me, it seems clear that the charities’ refusal of the Presidents Club money was not about women’s rights in any real sense. It was about reputation management and image alone… But when children’s lives are at stake, I can’t help but feel that we’re starting to pay a very real, and tragic price, for this madness.

Depending on your moral theory, you might be inclined to agree with Strimpel (at least with the sentiment that we should evaluate the overall good/bad outcomes to guide our evaluations of events like the Presidents Club dinner). A utilitarian might conclude (perhaps with a degree of regret) that, if moral licensing/cleansing are powerful tools of influence in the realm of charitable donations, then charities would be right (even obliged) to exploit this knowledge in pursuit of donations that they justifiably believe will effectively promote net utility in the world.

Moral licensing may prove troubling for those attracted to virtue ethical accounts of morality, which propose that people should act in the way a virtuous person would act. Such accounts rely, however, upon the assumption that people typically have robust characters that are reasonably consistent across different situations. As such, it makes sense to describe someone who regularly donates to charity as generous, or one who puts herself in the line of fire as courageous. Observing the behaviour of some of those attending the Presidents Club, the virtue ethicist would be inclined to identify bad characters, evidenced by their immoral, indulgent, selfish and disrespectful behaviour. Moral licensing (along with other proposed phenomena identified by ‘situationist’ psychologists) may make it difficult to extrapolate from behaviour in a particular time and place to someone’s character in general. Good behaviour now might not indicate a good character, but rather, a person likely to do bad things in the near future!

There is more to be said here, but most virtue ethicists do not consider the findings of social psychology a significant threat to their theory. Rather, it may be that the theory needs refining, to take account of the empirical reality and allow for behaviour to be influenced (though not wholly determined) by situations. A virtue ethicist is likely to be uncomfortable with the exploitation of moral licensing/cleansing effects by charitable fundraisers, such as the Presidents Club, since, rather than supporting the development and maintenance of good character, they facilitate its corruption. Whilst those behaving badly may have been manipulated and encouraged into doing so, they are still culpable for failing to act virtuously, and this is not eradicated by any subsequent acts of generosity.

Whatever your ethical theory, the Presidents Club scandal raises interesting questions about how we should trade off desirable and undesirable consequences, and complicates our assessments of people as being of good or bad character.


*A meta-analysis by Blanken et al (2015) has sought to establish the reliability and scale of moral licensing effects across a number of experimental conditions, concluding that the effect size is likely to be small-to-medium – they describe it as “somewhat smaller than other typical effects in social psychology”. Without delving into the quagmire of social science methodologies, it is worth noting that a number of phenomena in social psychology have come under scrutiny recently in what is sometimes described as the ‘replication crisis.’ A degree of scepticism may be warranted when considering the significance of effects, such as moral licensing, particularly where these haven’t been replicated and where studies use small sample sizes.


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